William Mulholland was awoken by a call sometime after midnight, a terrible accident had occurred. “Please, God. Don’t let people be killed” were the only words out of Mulholland’s mouth as he reached for the phone.

When a high-value engineering project fails, it is a media sensation. First, the organization’s name is smeared across the news, then internal and external investigators descend on the crisis looking for the team at fault. From the mess of the failure, a name is pulled out – a landing pad for the grief and blame of the failure. Sometimes they are a scapegoat, and sometimes the blame is exactly where it needs to be. In either situation, the damage to an individual’s reputation is costly.

Mulholland received that call because he had been the senior engineer of the St. Francis Dam. Just a day prior Mulholland had proclaimed the dam safe. On March 12, 1928, that Dam broke 2 minutes before midnight. Positioned within San Francisquito Canyon, the engineering failure claimed the lives of 450 people. The disaster ended Mulholland’s career in the eyes of his peers and himself. He was demoralized claiming “I envy the dead.” Although there was a team behind the Dam, Mulholland was cast as the villain of the story.

The St. Francis Dam before (pictured left) and after (pictured right) the dam’s failure.

Later it was determined that the mistake was not Mulholland’s. The foundational rock the Dam had been built upon was not suitable. A discovery that was not possible at that time. Although not Mulholland’s fault, the disaster ruined his reputation and self-perception, never to be rebuilt again.

Reputation and performance go hand in hand; they feed off each other. Poor performance contributes to a poor reputation which in turn enacts poor performance from that individual. In Mulholland’s case after his reputation was destroyed, his sense of confidence, and his ability to perform were decimated. Engineers face the same challenge every day, although to a much lesser extent.

Personal reputation is impacted by multiple, small yet complex issues. Personal confidence, social performance, disposition, and even the reputation of those around you heavily weigh on your professional image.

Diving into the particulars of personal reputations illuminates the importance of fostering a positive reputation as an individual and how exactly an employer can assist in this process. Just as reputation and performance can impact one another negatively, they can also have positive interference, allowing a professional to unlock creativity and innovation.

Confidence is Key

Individuals go to great lengths to ensure their reputation remains positive. They incur a cost of physical, monetary, social, and psychological resources to improve their status and reputation. They are essentially betting on the future; technically, it’s a safe bet. A study from the Journal of the Royal Society concluded that a favorable reputation increases one’s expected payoff in future social interactions.

Individuals with a higher social status perform better in their jobs. In an experiment involving professionals in a stressful situation, results showed that individuals with a higher sense of social status had better “biophysical responses to the stress than those who viewed themselves as lower in social status.”

Individuals with higher self-confidence and reputation positively influence those around them. They perform better, create a space for others to perform better, and inspire innovation within themselves and others. Innovation flourishes in the presence of a positive reputation and confidence, specifically for those in a management position.

A survey illustrated that when those in leadership positions retain confidence in themselves, it instills greater confidence in their team. Teams performed better, producing a higher level of creative solutions. Employees look to their surroundings before deciding if they should voice an imaginative idea.

Confident leaders who craft a reputation for being receptive to creative ideas foster an environment that encourages employees to present unique concepts, aiding innovation. Good leaders, produce good teams and in turn good ideas.

The Slippery Slope of Negative Reputation

What happens when a personal reputation is damaged? In Mulholland’s case, he completely isolated himself from the world of engineering. Thankfully not every engineer faces a crisis so extreme. But system complexity is increasing, we demand more from our engineers, and mistakes do happen. The psychological and interpersonal effects of these mistakes can be lasting.

An article published at DePaul University illustrated those individuals with a negative reputation, or low social status, have increased aggressive behaviors and are prone to more “hostile” and “bullying behaviors.” The negative behavior continues within a group or team setting; they enable social isolation via “psychological defense mechanisms that are ultimately self-defeating.” The bullying behavior observed in individuals with negative reputations is costly. Employee turnover due to workplace bullying costs the U.S. an estimated $223 million.

The same paper that observed the connection between low social status and hostile behavior also observed reputational repair: “Demonstrating your value to a group—whether through competence or selflessness—appears to improve status.” Positive contributions to the group are crucial to increasing social status. Finding the confidence to participate positively in a group can be difficult when confronted with poor self-worth and a negative reputation. Technology may assist with this issue.

Our Solution

Software like QVscribe puts the power of reputation into the hands of engineers at the foundational phase of a project – the requirements stage. The return on investment is more than project budgets and financial resources; it’s happier more productive employees.

The software provides autonomy. Correct your mistakes on your own time with software that provides the right insights at the right time. QVscribe assists you during the requirements authoring stage as you write. The correction at the first occurrence allows rapid education and improvement. Your engineers learn from their mistakes as they make them.

Having an objective failsafe removes the biases on feedback and advancement. An individual’s reputation can often influence opinions – biases based on previous mistakes. Alternatively, a misplaced positive reputation can afford an individual little critique of their work, limits scrutiny from the team, allowing dangerous mistakes to take root within a more extensive project.

Tools like QVscribe deliver critique on facts not feelings. Seniority and personal reputation are taken out of the review process; the only influence on your QVscribe score is the quality of your requirement writing.

Tractability is ever present, your QVscribe reports detail the requirement you have personally overseen, with a metric confirming that they meet the organization’s standards.

In the case of St. Francis Dam, traceability was not present. Mulholland didn’t make the mistake, but no technology was available to determine the cause of the failure. Personal assurance is afforded by technologies such as QVscribe, helping you find the cause of an error, not a scapegoat.

Final Thoughts

Personal reputation is delicate. It can fuel the success of your career, or it can be the downfall of your professional life. Unraveling the motivation behind personal reputation and exploring its origin within our performance illustrates the importance of cultivating positive reputation management within our daily lives and the tools that can get us there.

As system complexity increases, so does the necessity to build trust in a person’s ability to perform. The margin of acceptable error is ever-decreasing, and engineers are faced with increasing restrictions regarding budget and time. But the tools to support engineers willing to face this challenge are here, and they work.

The St. Francis Dam collapse was not Mulholland’s fault. Although self-taught, his engineering, for its time, was sound. That however, was irrelevant, the failure of his project weighed heavily on him and the families of the victims.

We are at a stage in technology where the solutions for these issues are available. Equip yourself with the tools you need to succeed and protect your reputation.